Winter driving: 7 tips to keep you safe on the roads

Canadian winters are a treacherous time for motorists, so we went out with one of Canada's top driving instructors to get his top tips to keep drivers safe on icy roads.

'Have respect for Mother Nature, you won't beat her,' advises driving instructor Ian Law

Bruce Sellery teams up with a professional instructor to learn about driving safely during Canadian winters 9:24

After a relatively mild winter, the mercury is starting to plunge back below seasonal norms in many parts of Canada.

That can be dangerous for Canadian drivers, so CBC's The Exchange recently sought out driving instructor Ian Law for his best tips on how to keep in control when things get chilly. In this video item, host Bruce Sellery takes the wheel while Law offers his top seven tips for staying safe on icy roads.

Use winter tires

Unlike all-season radials that come installed on most new cars, winter tires are designed to handle cold, slippery conditions and offer far greater control on icy roads than cynics, who think they're not worth the expense, believe.

Winter tires are ade from a special type of rubber that stays soft in cold weather, which helps grab the road. They also have a more pronounced biting edge that helps wick water upwards. "Even at [warmer] temperatures it will make a difference in the amount of grip you have," Law said. "That's half the battle, right there."

Many insurance plans now offer discounts of up to 10 per cent if you use winter tires.

Keep your car maintained

A car that's in good working order will be safer in a crisis, since all systems will be working the way they were designed to.

Something as simple as making sure your fluids are topped up and fresh can be vital, Law says. That's especially true of when it comes to a driver's ability to see the road: Installing fresh windshield wiper blades and ensuring the wiper fluid reservoir is full can save your life.

"If you haven't changed your blades and those trucks spray anything up — if you can't see, how can you avoid it?"

Beware all-wheel drive

It might seem counterintuitive, but Law says all-wheel drive cars aren't necessarily any safer than two-wheel rear- or front-drive cars. "It's a performance feature, not a safety feature," he said.

All-wheel drive can make driving more dangerous since it can mask the true road conditions and get drivers into trouble. (CBC)

The key to winter driving is being able to control the car, which means steering ability, and in "actual fact all all-wheel-drive does is help you go faster," Law said. "On slippery roads, it helps drivers become overconfident," leading them to go faster than they should because the car is masking the lack of control. A driver in a two-wheel car will quickly feel the slippage and naturally slow down.

Don't bundle up too much

Believe it or not, the way a driver is dressed inside the car can be a factor in safety. In cold Canadian winters, drivers are often bundled up in heavy parkas. That can become a safety issue 10 minutes later because the driver starts to overheat as the car warms up, which can be a distraction. It gets worse if their seatbelt now doesn't sit right because they buckled in improperly to get over their coat.

Heavy boots can also be a menace. "Half the communication is in the wheel, the other half is the pedals," Law said. "When you're wearing heavy boots you can't feel the pedals properly."

3-and-9 — not 10-and-2

Using the traditional clock-face analogy, many drivers learned to keep their hands at the 10-and-2 positions on the steering wheel. However, a better hand position is 9-and-3 since, as Law puts it, "the farther apart your hands are, the more precise your inputs are going to be."

If the hands are too close, they can be working against each other in some emergency turns, so keep them at 9-and-3 whenever possible.

Law also recommends a manoeuvre called a "six o'clock slidethrough," in which the safest position for a turn is often to move one hand to the six o'clock position in a turn, and then hold it there loosely while the wheel slides through as the car rights itself. It's hard to visualize in print, but click here to see it in action.

Listen to your car

Modern vehicles are marvels of engineering with an incredible array of safety features found even on baseline models. Put simply, everything in the car is designed to keep its occupants safe, so it's important to be aware when the car warns you something is awry and respond accordingly. 

When drivers are going too fast into a turn, for example, cars are designed to skid and slide on the front end first in most cases, to give drivers the best chance of responding without fish-tailing out.  Speeding through a turn gives the driver several warning sounds and signals when a front-end skid looms. "The vehicle is going to tell you — the wheel is going to feel different — that you're approaching a limit" Law said, as Sellery gains speed through a turn in the clip above. "When you get closer, the wheels start to howl," he said. "When you are really at the limit they are squealing."

So listen to your car.

Have a good attitude

Above all, Law says, his best winter driving advice is for a driver to have a positive attitude and understand the skills required to drive safely. "Have respect for Mother Nature," he said. "You will not beat her."

Too many drivers think they are better than other drivers on the road, and better able to control their car in winter conditions. Young men, for example, are renowned for getting "macho" about their driving skills.

"Any fool can drive fast," Law said. "Smart drivers know when not to."



To encourage thoughtful and respectful conversations, first and last names will appear with each submission to CBC/Radio-Canada's online communities (except in children and youth-oriented communities). Pseudonyms will no longer be permitted.

By submitting a comment, you accept that CBC has the right to reproduce and publish that comment in whole or in part, in any manner CBC chooses. Please note that CBC does not endorse the opinions expressed in comments. Comments on this story are moderated according to our Submission Guidelines. Comments are welcome while open. We reserve the right to close comments at any time.